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Category: Literature

January Reading List

Edit because I just finished the last book on the list and it’s not yet February.

Mostly for my own use, though I’m happy to use comments to discuss anything on the list (or related recommendations), here are the books I remember reading this month. The theory is that this will become some sort of monthly ritual, but it’s easy to say that the first time around. I may give vague impressions of what I’ve read, but not necessarily. It’s really just so I have an archive and can feel like I’ve accomplished something, although it’s really nothing special, especially this time around.

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
Here Susan gets to show her prowess with her bow as well as her strength as a swimmer and everyone but Lucy has trouble seeing Aslan because they haven’t kept him at the front of their minds. Can you tell I’m still a bit bothered by how things turn out for Susan at the end of the series?

The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
Still and always my favorite of the lot. When I was in high school I had a bracelet I wore on my upper arm, high enough that it wasn’t below the sleeve of my uniform blouse, to remind me not to be beastly like Eustace. I’m not sure it worked.

The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
My favorite part is still the point near the end when the children and Prince Rilian and Puddleglum emerge into Narnia. While this might be one of the easiest to make into a movie since it’s basically a quest story, though the twists and turns will probably be tweaked and tightened, I’m not sure how successful the group that did the first movie would be at getting the wonder of fleeing from a destroyed world into Narnia and the way that twins and twists Jill and Eustace’s original descent into Narnia.

The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
I still have a soft spot for Aravis, although I don’t generally like stories about spoiled girls. I was never as keen on the horse’s boy, although the horses were and are a lot of fun. I know there are a lot of complaints that Lewis is racist because he made the Calormenes Arabesque (and I mean that in an overstated, loopy way) and then showed a lot of bad ones, but I’m not totally sold on this. Am I being a hypocrite and patronizing if I say that I think he was just too sheltered to be more sophisticated about the way children talk and act or the way cultures work? I do really think he was going for a cultural distinction; in creating a land bereft of Narnia’s natural bounty, he ended up with a desert place without magic or magical creatures. I’m inclined to believe that the desert came first and the characterization of the Calormenes after because he imagined desert-dwellers to be like the Arabs he’d only read about in mistranslations of the Arabian Nights. Since we learn later that honest worship of the Calormene god Tash doesn’t keep believers out of Narnian heaven, I don’t think there’s any sort of Christian/Muslim dichotomy being set up here. Since Aravis is fully accepted in non-Calormene society not only as a full person but (eventually) royalty, it seems to me that what’s going on is an explanation that true nobility has to do more with goodness and right judgment than birth or breeding. But there’s also the Mary Sue aspect of all this world-building, because Narnia is really just totally awesome and other places, well, aren’t. And if Lewis seems to relish it a bit, again I chalk it up to his misplaced nuance or to having too small a (rigid) view of the world. Of course I also don’t think it’s a bad idea for people who are bothered by the way race and gender are handled in the Narnia books to give up on them or object; I just happen to keep reading and let things nag at me here. Elsewhere I’m not so forgiving.

The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis
Maybe the weirdest and scariest Narnia book, but the idea of the world between worlds is a great one.

The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
Still sort of creepy, in part because everything happens so fast and remains so murky. It’s much easier to read as an adult than as a child, where I found it unsettling and puzzling. I’d rather it have been the story of the Calormene Emeth, who is faithful to his own god and therefore allowed to enter the afterlife-Narnia, because most of the other characters seem to be there mostly to tie up loose ends.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Steven decided to get this after reading Pam Noles’s recent essay on race and the book at The Infinite Matrix. I wasn’t surprised by the resolution of the plot, but found it a pleasant, engaging story throughout, which sounds more patronizing than what I really want to say.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Much more to my liking, perhaps a sign that I’d overdone it on the young adult fantasy this month. I may try to write more on this later, about how much I enjoyed the way perceived gender issues played out and the way certain stereotypes persist into this future. I assumed at first that the narrator was a woman, which may be relevant. It was beautifully written story carried by strong voices, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
Maybe I do have more sympathy than I’d expect for spoiled heroines, because Tehar/Arha was captivating both in her self-absorption and her gradual opening as her world widens. This is my favorite of the Earthsea books I’ve read so far, perhaps because it has the most prominent female character, but I think also because it stays in one place for much longer and while the world-building is excellent throughout, I enjoyed the depth I got to see in the small desert shrine.

The Farthest Shore, Ursula K. Le Guin
The last of her books we have. I liked both the quest aspect and the underlying story about losing and regaining humanity.

Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon
Okay, rounding out the YA fantasy a bit is some lesbian pulp from the 50s! This one is left over from a class Steven took a few years ago, but I’d already read the sequel, I Am a Woman, from a legitimate pulp copy I’d found last fall. One of the most interesting unimportant details in this tale of sorority love was the revelation that the main character, Laura, does what we’d now call self-injury, pinching her arm until it bruises when she’s uncomfortable or needs to calm herself. The sex is, by my modern standards, not the least bit lurid and almost entirely elided, but the characters are strong and clear. I’m going to try to read the rest of the books featuring Beebo Brinker (and this wasn’t once since Laura doesn’t meet her until after she moves to New York at the end of the book) because they’re so fascinating as quasi-historical documents and as stories themselves. Last night’s trip to the county library let me find out that they don’t have any Bannon, but I haven’t yet looked at Cincinnati’s holdings. There’s still one more on the bedroom shelves that I can read before I have to start looking outside.

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
This one decidedly did not work for me. It tells the story of Odysseus’s famed wife Penelope from her perspective, backed by a chorus comprised of the maids who are hanged at the end of The Odyssey for having consorted with Penelope’s suitors. I’m a big fan of myth/fairy tale retellings, but I didn’t like the particular way Penelope’s voice was pulled out of time here to allow her to address and assess modernity and various readings of her story, although I like the idea. It was like some failed writing exercise, and the maids were much worse. Being a chorus meant having to put up with Dr. Seuss-level rhymes, blunt and dull, that I’d hate to hear put to music. Maybe it’s because I expected it to sound a bit more Greek or thought that Penelope at least would not believe in Homer, which is to say that perhaps I wanted it to be what I would make it if I wrote such a thing, but I found the whole thing (with the exception of a few sentences, one of them right out of The Odyssey) more frustrating and vapidly annoying than inspiring or entertaining.

Embarrassing content added here:
Eleven on Top, Janet Evanovich
I read the Stephanie Plum series because my parents do and my partner at work does, so it allows me to take part in conversations about how trashy the books are and how there are sometimes funny lines. That’s all true, but getting through this one took effort without much payoff and I think it will be the end of the line for me. At least I have plenty of informants who will let me know if the quality picks up in later books. At this point, there’s enough exposition that I won’t be missing much even if I do skip a few installments; I’m still not totally sure I read the tenth book or whether maybe I just read the dust jacket, but it’s not the kind of story where that makes a lot of difference, and that’s just the kind of story people who want to read it will want.

Now a Tamed Lion

Since I did a health update last time, I’ll add now that apparently the reason I’ve felt yucky the whole last month is pneumonia, but I’m on a new antibiotic that seems to be turning things around. Still, expect a certain amount of radio silence.

We did go see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a week or two ago. Steven had read the books in middle school or so, but I got to them much earlier, which I think is why they stuck so deep in me. In kindergarten, I could recite full pages from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because I spent so much time poring over it and making sure my pictures of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy matched the descriptions. I’ve probably read it and my very favorite, The Voyage of The Dawn Treader 50+ times, if not far more than that. But I hadn’t read them recently, not since middle school or so for me, when I moved from believing that even if I Jesus made no sense to me I could understand the power of Aslan to deciding that it was all just stories and I was ready to read something new. After the movie, though, I decided to give them another shot. I was reading a book a night last week (in publication chronology) but I seem to have tapered off after The Silver Chair, since I know in my old opinion it was all downhill from there, especially into The Last Battle.

See, that’s where the gender problems get inescapable, or so it seemed to me. The Pevensie children are thrust into Narnia again because they’re dying on earth, but sister Susan is no longer with them. See, she’s now more interested in boys and stockings and lipstick than in the Narnian ideals of righteousness and stuff. (Here and throughout quotes are paraphrased, but correct to the best of my memory. Again, I plead sick and don’t want to have to flip through all those pages.) Apparently so much for “once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia” when it comes to getting one last chance! I think it especially bothered me because in the setup to Dawn Treader it’s explained that Susan gets to accompany their parents to America because she’s pretty and not as smart as the other children and thus will gain more from the experience. See, that always bothered me. Shouldn’t Aslan grade on a curve if this is what we already know Susan’s like? That’s all the explanation there is, though, and that always nagged at me even though I wouldn’t say I’ve ever cared about lipstick or stockings or boys.

Nothing before that seemed too bad, though it was there. Father Christmas tells the girls in the first book that wars are ugly when women fight. Then there’s Eustace’s teetotaler, vegetarian parents in Dawn Treader, with his mother particularly singled out for being disappointed when he comes back from Narnia, where he’s had life-changing experiences, because now he’s just like an ordinary boy. In the ridiculous liberal parody school, Experiment House, that Jill and Eustace attend in The Silver Chair, the head of schools who allows bullying to go on in order to study bullies turns out in the last pages to be (gasp!) a woman, although she’s eventually shuffled off to Parliament where she won’t have any more negative effects on anyone. Maybe it’s because these books have been part of my life since before I could read that this comes across as more a cranky old uncle-figure complaining about kids (and schools) these days. I didn’t agree, but I found it easier to ignore those bits and focus on the parts I found less off-putting.

What I did find more off-putting was the way the movie dealt with such issues. This is very much Lucy’s story and there’s a reason, in Lewis’s rigid gender system, that this is a book dedicated to a young girl. It’s not really about the epic battle sequences, although I may just be saying this because they do nothing for me. More important are the personal transformations the children all go through in their adventure, and unfortunately if you’re going to have exciting times hiding from the wolves, you don’t have time for all that. It just seemed unbalanced to me, in a story about children thrown into a situation where they have to become adults, to depict this almost purely by how nobly they toss their heads when sparring or doing archery practice. And that’s not even mentioning the things the movie added. Now Mr. and Mrs. Beaver suddenly play out the smart mom/doofus dad dynamic common in bad sitcoms, and I don’t think talking animals had to be funny in quite the modern way they were. I don’t think the Susan/Peter dynamic was expressed well enough in the movie, either; they weren’t trying to be mom and dad, just to be leaders to the other children as best they could and with varying ideas about what would be best. Father Christmas’s line about why he doesn’t want Lucy and Susan to fight unless they absolutely must gets cleaned up, but then Peter forces Edmund to wear a woman’s coat, because nothing’s more humiliating than being like a girl! Ah, how times have changed in these 60 years!

This is all leaving aside the question of whether there’s a crypto-Christian story playing, which is certainly what Christian groups are being told. I’m not so sure. Yeah, Aslan sacrifices himself and then shows up again, but I think there’s more to Jesus than that. What we don’t hear until the very end of the movie is the refrain that runs through the book, Aslan is not a tame lion. The actors did their best to portray the awesomeness (in both the grand and terrifying sense) of the Great Lion, but the movie didn’t really bother with that. Weirder still is that only Aslan has to make meaningful sacrifices, and all his scarier moments are removed so that he can look better gilded. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Lucy comes upon her dying brother Edmund as the battle is winding down and she gives him a drop of her healing fire flower potion. For a long, dreadful moment, nothing happens. Then Aslan tells her that she needs to move on to others, and she basically shushes him. He points out (loudly) that others may be dying because of her selfishness and at that she leaps up apologetically and heads out on her task. Edmund’s stern talking-to when he’s returned to Aslan’s camp is fiercer, too, as is the admonition that Peter needs to clean his sword. Maybe there are a lot of Christians who think that individuals don’t matter in the face of a god whose sacrifice has changed everything, but I’m pretty sure most of them go in for the “doing good works” side of things too. That’s the part, not the deeper magic from before the dawn of time, that seems compelling to me as a reader, though not as a viewer since it’s hardly anywhere to be seen.

I complained a little about the battle already and I’m sure in the post-Lord of the Rings era we’re going to get many such showdowns, but this one struck me as almost dull. Again, it’s partly because the girls are absent. In the book, it’s the battle that’s left in the background (a sign that Lewis/Aslan now trust Edmund and Peter to play their roles without oversight?) with the waking of the statues as the key plot point. I loved the scene with Giant Rumblebuffin (not in the least because it brings back Lucy’s handkerchief a third time) and the little Christmas diners and the moment when Lucy finds the stone Mr. Tumnus in a niche upstairs and the other lion who leaps around telling everyone about his brotherhood with Aslan, who speaks of “us lions.” This is drama! This is weeping giants and a reminder that a battle isn’t decided only by those on the front lines (again, I think, a nod toward the Christians). Instead what we got were vaguely realistic falling rocks and charging polar bears, which I’m sure thrilled and excited plenty of viewers but seemed to me to be missing something. As becomes clearer in later books, part of what makes Narnia special is the talking animals, the naiads and dryads and so on. Should the moment of Narnian glory really be represented as one long beastly roar? Sure, we need to see Edmund go for the Witch’s wand rather than her head, but I really don’t care about in what order the centaurs went forth, and the archers and so on.

Then there was the Witch herself, who seemed to me pure sex almost to the point of overkill. She seemed scary because she was so weird, not because she was cold and dangerous. Sure, she would have killed Edmund, but even the moment she slaughters Aslan didn’t seem as intense and final as I thought it should have been. There wasn’t really the primal darkness I wanted to see, just the sense that she had an army of clones without personalities behind her willing to heed her every command. Maybe that’s a place where no movie could touch imagination, but it seemed the onset of spring melted her too instead of leaving her flushed with fury and desperate power.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I thought it was a lot of fun, and the 6 or so children sitting behind us (much quieter than their parents) seemed to enjoy it too. I told Steven just before the movie started, “Knit bloggers are trying to figure out how to make Lucy’s sweater, but I don’t think I’ll want to do that.” I was so, so wrong.

“Anything I say can be held against me.”

Today I was thinking about a conference I attended as an undergrad, Performing Aristophanes. I really miss going to conferences and lectures and talking to visiting professors, but that’s not really the point. What I was thinking about was how difficult it is to translate humor. How can I make a joke that was relevant nearly 2500 years ago funny now while still leaving it in some way intact? What’s cultural-specific and what’s universal? This is something I think about a lot when reading manga, and I wish more manga translators/adapters kept blogs themselves, because I’d love to hear about the process.

I have a few examples, though I’m not going to be a good enough blogger to look up the page numbers or anything like that. In the first volume of Genshiken, the club welcomes a new otaku member with the chant, “One of us, one of us, one of us.” Is this because there’s a big Japanese market for Freaks or was there something else there originally? Since Japanese isn’t even on my list of languages to learn, I don’t think I’ll be finding out. Then there was, I think, the first volume of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, in which the main character, Shugo, was told he wasn’t even qualified to be an “assistant pig-keeper” in the online roleplaying game he was entering. Is this a Japanese Lloyd Alexander shout out or is the translator remembering his (the Tokyopop site doesn’t list any names, but I remember blaming Jake Forbes, perhaps unfairly) own childhood favorites?

There’s more than this, though. When the character called Osaka, after the town where she most recently lived, talks like she should be on The Sopranos in Azumanga Daioh, is this to denote class and ethnicity or could it be any funny accent? When the Chinese student in Negima uses pidgin English (presumably originally Japanese) I do feel kind of awkward about it because I can’t evaluate the extent to which she’s playing on ugly stereotypes. (And in that case I’m tending to believe that’s what’s going on, given that apparently Ken Akamatsu’s more famous book, Love Hina, features some sort of fictionalized Polynesian girl who is also a sort of ingenue/airhead figure.)

So how do you translate culture and context and depth? I was left wondering about this when we saw Syriana last weekend. I didn’t find the plot confusing, but was fascinated by some of the language choices. As far as I can tell, the considerable foreign language portions were under-translated (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, French that I recall), perhaps because American audiences can’t keep up with long subtitles. You can tell that when a long string of text doesn’t lead to correspondingly long translations, something may be up, but I noticed something even more striking. At one point as Wasim, a young Pakistani man who has been working as a day laborer in the fictitious Persian Gulf state where much of the action takes place, is being pulled on a radical Islamic path in the madrasa he attends, the man instructing him and his friends goes on a tirade about how, basically, globalization is not solving the problems of modern life. I’m trying to phrase this so that I’m not paraphrasing the Islamist slogan “Islam is the answer,” but I do think that’s left implicit in the teacher’s repetition of “Qur’an” as a counterpoint to everything that isn’t making the students’ lives easier. And then he says something that is rendered as (more or less, because I know I don’t remember the predicate of the sentence, though I do know the subject), “The Christian world doesn’t help you.” But he didn’t say “the Christian world,” or at least didn’t exactly say it. He said “al-Harb,” meaning “Dar al-Harb, the house of war. He’s saying in much stronger terms than just breaking the world into Muslim and Christian spheres of influence that there’s a war going on and there are sides to be chosen, that the dichotomy is real and comprehensible. It was strong enough that it grabbed me in the theater and I elbowed Steven and told him to bother me later for details, but I wonder whether the language was strong enough for other viewers who didn’t know even enough Arabic to notice this. Obviously they still knew that Wasim was being wooed into a system where he was still a pawn, but well-fed and literate, Arabic-speaking. They understood that this was a lecture about the state of the world and the imperative the teacher felt for his brand of Islam, but is it only because they knew what kind of movie this was and because of the America we live in that they could tell what brand that was, know that there was a war on?

I don’t know how to answer questions like that. You can call this a hypertext movie, but in hypertext there are more links, you can keep another tab in your browser open to google what you don’t understand. It doesn’t really work like that if what you don’t understand is in Farsi, because where do you start? How do you know?

Maybe Syriana is more interesting to people like me who already ask questions like that, who appreciate the necessity of incompleteness in communication. Certainly it may resonate better with others like me who will recognize that its corporatespeak is awfully close to the real thing, or those who pick up on more religious references than I do, or people who know more about the flow of oil and LNG. For me, though, it worked as a movie and as a parable of sorts about corruption and complicity. I was able to tell the characters apart even though they were virtually all men (an ongoing problem) and I think the complexity of the plot was overrated by a lot of the critics I read. However, as I’ve commented, the complexity in the story was perhaps more than I can know.

“You have bewitched me, body and soul.”

(I suppose I’m back and I’d like to stay this way, though such an absence felt surprisingly good. I’m quite sick, too, so weirdness will probably be a result of that more than anything else. I have tons more knitting to post and other things I’ve been thinking about, but perhaps we should finally take ourselves off the Comic Weblog Update Page.)

Steven and I watched Pride & Prejudice a few weeks ago now, I suppose, although I’d watched it on my own a week before that and I finished rereading the book this weekend. I’d read it first when I was 10 or so and it seemed so alien, less because of the social machinations than the love, I suspect. I may not understand what love feels like now, but certainly didn’t then when I expected I’d grow up to be a writer who lived alone with cats and perhaps foster children. The joke’s on me, I suppose, since everyone who’s dropped by here has seen how much writing I do, though at least there is now a cat.

At any rate, before seeing the movie or embarking on the novel again, I’d read Rachel Hartman’s lovely posts about the place of Romanticism and her detailed thoughts post-viewing. I haven’t seen any of the other Pride and Prejudice adaptations and don’t imagine I will. (The much-beloved Colin Firth seemed like such a square-headed, lumpy creep in Love Actually and made no impression in the dreadful recent The Importance of Being Earnest, the only two times I’ve ever seen him.) Oh, and I have to add that the North American ending wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t dialogue, but there decidedly is. Ack.

Where I’m going with this is that in Rachel’s second post she complained about some of the goofy, sappy choices in the movie, particularly when Lizzy and Darcy are dancing and all of a sudden ooooh, they’re the only couple in the room. And when you put it like that, yes, gag, but I was going to argue it’s something I’d accept in shôjo manga and that’s why I allowed it here. It’s been a progress for me, first allowing superheroes to work as metaphors for mundane life, then learning to see the angry scowls in Nana as perfectly normal and understandable, finally ending up not minding in my movie romances when the scene ends as the heroine blows out her candle. And while there’s probably something to the argument that Pride & Prejudice is a Bollywood film, I think I’d have been on equally strong ground explaining that it’s got shôjo elements, moments when emotions get so strong they skew reality. But then I remember that before I called that shôjo I called it focalization.

Rachel touches on this, too, that in the book (and, apparently, prior conversions to film) when Lizzy meets Darcy again after having rejected his unexpected offer of marriage (in part because she’d found him insufferably self-absorbed and antisocial) only to find him a changed man, open, generous, shy. It seems that many readers want this moment, want to see that love has changed Darcy, and that’s not quite there in this current version. While I wouldn’t say that’s not the case in the novel, what’s more apparent to me is that love has changed Lizzy and that she’s the focalized(/focalizing) character. While it’s not a first-person book, much of what we see is swayed by her eyes, which is part of the reason her father is a fuller character even though her mother gets more “airtime.” While the movie uses an even more distant third-person setup, I think the effect is the same. We get to see one of Lizzy’s dreams, including the reddish look of light from within her closed eyes, but less literal is the way the world melts away when she and Darcy dance or becomes an unchanging cage when she has rejected his love. If I were still 10, this might bother me because I’d doubt love was like that. I do doubt that a bit, I guess, but I think life is like that, with moments of excitement or pain we capture and turn into metaphors, and I thought the movie handled it beautifully.

And after all that is it still important to note that I covet Lizzy’s coats? I like Keira Knightley to begin with and I did believe her as Lizzy, giggles and raised eyebrows and lewd stares at nude statues’ privy parts and all. And while I don’t look the least bit like her and probably couldn’t pull it off, I keep hoping this is going to jump-start some sort of fashion trend and those boots and coats will be readily available (and maybe not too popular so they’ll end up on clearance and I can buy them myself). Then you could draw me with tiny dot eyes and a huge, huge smile.

Last Week’s Entertainment

What I Read

Banana Sunday #1, p. 4

Banana Sunday #1, by Root Nibot and Colleen Coover: Orangutans and gorillas are apes, not monkeys. This error is especially troubling in a book that I would otherwise happily give to a child. Oh well. Nibot writes stylized, emotionally heightened dialogue—it’s like the characters are just a little more excited by everything than they would be if the dialogue were more naturalistic. Hmm, I see David Welsh has already explained what I’m trying to talk about. As he notes, a lot of the dialogue is exclamatory declarations of character traits. It fits just right with Coover’s cartoony exaggeration. The page I’ve scanned here is one of the clearest examples, especially the middle tier of panels. Coover tends to draw characters in an odd half-hunched posture—it makes them look endearingly eager or beleaguered as appropriate. Go-Go the gorilla is a shameless scene stealer, and I cannot resist.

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville: I’ve only just started it. I hated Billy Budd when I had to read it in high school, but Moby-Dick is great fun so far. So far it’s mostly been the madcap adventures of Ishmael and Queequeeg, and I can’t wait till this comedy duo encounters Captain Ahab and his mad quest—who knows what’ll happen then, but it’s sure to be crazy and entertaining. For some reason, I imagine Grant Morrison reading Moby-Dick at a malleable age. I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished the book, I think.

Rose and I saw Mulholland Dr. and Rize recently, so hopefully more about them later. And, er, Minority Report, which I haven’t forgotten but have been too lazy to watch.

Minority Report and Film Adaptation: Part 2

[See Minority Report and Film Adaptation Part 1.]

Dick, Philip K. Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.

[…] Anderton said: “You’ve probably grasped the basic legalistic drawback to precrime methodology. We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law.”

“But they surely will,” Witwer affirmed with conviction.

“Happily they don’t—because we get them first, before they can commit an act of violence. So the commission of the crime itself is absolute metaphysics. We claim they’re culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they’re innocent. And, in a sense, they are.”

The lift let them out, and they again paced down a yellow corridor. “In our society we have no major crimes,” Anderton went on, “but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals. (228-229)

In “Minority Report,” John Anderton is the founder and chief of Precrime. He acknowledges the apparent dilemma of precrime, but he doesn’t consider it a dilemma: it’s not a problem to imprison people who would have been considered innocent under the old “post-crime” legal system (obviously, since they haven’t actually committed a crime), because they certainly would have committed a crime if given the chance. It’s an odd metaphysics: The people who will commit a crime have no free will; their future is determined. But for the police who know the future, it remains undetermined; they can prevent a crime they know will be committed. It’s unclear what happens to precriminals; they may be imprisoned only until the time of their alleged crime is past or they may be imprisoned indefinitely. But either way, the system is problematic, at least from a human-rights perspective: if the police can change the future, then the future must be indeterminate; and it seems—to me, anyway—that we could reasonably doubt the rectitude of a conviction for a potential crime, however likely. But Anderton has absolute faith in the system, until the prediction of his own commission of murder comes in:

“You have to be taken in—if Precrime is to survive. You’re thinking of your own safety. But think, for a moment, about the system. […] Which means more to you—your own personal safety or the existence of the system?”

“My safety,” Anderton answered, without hesitation.

“You’re positive?”

[…] “If the system can survive only by imprisoning innocent people, then it deserves to be destroyed. My personal safety is important because I’m a human being.” (250)

He has apparently be framed—by his new assistant Witwer, he first thinks, but it turns about to be the Army—for the future murder of retire general Leopold Kaplan, except it turns out he wasn’t framed: the prediction is accurate. But he nows he won’t kill Kaplan—he was going to kill Kaplan the Army manipulated events so that he would, and after he discovers this plot he suddenly has no reason to commit murder. As it turns out, though, that was the Army’s plan all along: get a murder prediction for Anderton, let him discover their plot to prevent him from actually committing the murder, then discredit Precrime by revealing the clearly inaccurate prediction. Their goal is to get Precrime shut down so they can step in and take control of the police state.

Actually, one of the precog mutants (there are three) is slightly out of phase with the other two, like a clock running slow; and he, with Anderton’s knowledge of his own future as part of his predictive data set, predicts that Anderton will not commit murder. This minority report, as it’s called, doesn’t help Precrime much, as the Army plans to present it as proof that Anderton wouldn’t have committed murder. When a minority report occurs, it’s assumed that the majority report is accurate, so the Army can point out that in Anderton’s case, the minority report is in fact the accurate prediction.

What’s more important: his own life, or the system he created? Will he sacrifice the system he created to save himself? He sure will—until he discovers the Army’s goal of usurping Precrime’s position, at which point he quickly and silently changes his mind. After reviewing the three precog reports, he discovers that there are in fact three out-of-phase minority reports: the first predicts he will murder Kaplan, the second predicts he will change his mind and not murder Kaplan, the third predicts he will change his mind again and murder Kaplan after all. The third prediction provides him an opportunity to foil the Army’s plan: he must murder Kaplan to demonstrate the system’s accuracy. Will he sacrifice himself to save the system he created? He will. But only a few minutes before he finally decides to kill Kaplan, he was convinced of the system’s inhumanity and injustice. How does he justify his change of heart? He cheats. When Witwer worries about the serious flaw in the system implied by Anderton’s surprising sequence of predictions, Anderton says, “It can only happen in one circumstance […] My case was unique, since I had access to the data” (264). It’s a weak argument. It’s true that the precogs turned out to be correct in Anderton’s case; but as he says, his case is unique: that the precogs would happen to make three different predictions such that the predictions demonstrate that the future is determinate rather than indeterminate is wildly implausible, and Anderton is unbelievably lucky it happened to him. Much more likely, in a case like Anderton’s, the precogs would end up with an inaccurate prediction. Anderton insists that you can change your future only if you know what it’s supposed to be, but that’s metaphysical theorizing, and there’s no apparent reason to believe it. The predictions of Anderton’s commission of murder are accurate (in a bizarre way), but their more important implication is that the future is indeterminate, that a prediction doesn’t indicate something that will certainly happen unless the police prevent it. That much was obvious to us readers from the beginning, of course, and Anderton’s ordeal makes the problem painfully clear. But, for Anderton, political necessity trumps personal safety and human rights.

I’m actually not completely sure what I want to say about Minority Report yet, so I’ll end here for now.

Minority Report and Film Adaptation: Part 1

Film adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s stories are obviously nothing like the stories. But I’ve never thought in depth about specifically how they differ, so now I’m looking at Dick’s “Minority Report” vs. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

First, most immediately obvious, is style. Here’s a passage from “Minority Report”:

“Jerry” was twenty-four years old. Originally, he had been classified as a hydrocephalic idiot but when he reached the age of six the psych testers had identified the precog talent, buried under the layers of tissue corrosion. Placed in a government-operated training school, the latent talent had been cultivated. By the time he was nine the talent had advanced to a useful stage. “Jerry,” however, remained in the aimless chaos of idiocy; the burgeoning faculty had absorbed the totality of his personality.

Serviceable but unpolished. It’s a little clunky; the third sentence is carelessly ungrammatical. Having read several of Dick’s novels and short stories, I suspect he would write a story once, as quickly as he could, and never look back. I don’t know if that’s really the case; but he wrote forty-four novels and one-hundred twenty-one short stories in about thirty years, so he couldn’t have had much time for revision and proofreading. Dick’s writing isn’t always as rough as that passage, and it has its own shabby charm; but mostly, you don’t Dick to admire his lovely prose style. He rushes too urgently through the story to have style.

The story also lacks for description, both of the future world and the immediate environments and characters. Anything that must be described receives minimal description. The story takes place in New York, under the control of the Federal Westbloc Government; “Federal” suggests some continuity with the United States of America, and “Westbloc” suggests the government is a descendent of NATO. There was a devestating Anglo-Chinese War which left much of at least North America in blasted ruins, during which the Westbloc was controlled entirely by the military, which operated a domestic police force in addition to fighting the war. After the war, the Westbloc was demilitarized and the Precrime Agency founded to run the police force. There is a Senate, but it’s not clear what it does or what the government looks like at all. The preceeding paragraph is not a summary: it is almost the entirety of the setting information provided by the story itself. There are a few other details, but none of them implies a deeper world than is explicitly presented.

But consider Minority Report. Like all film adaptations of Dick’s work, the first thing you notice is how good it looks. Not only good, but polished and shiny; the entire movie has a hazy, slightly overexposed glow. It looks like the inside of a tv ad. True, it’s not all shiny and tv-ready: Spielberg’s vision of Dick’s paranoid future does have slums populated by illicit Russian surgeons and drug dealers who’ve removed their own eyes to avoid ubiquitous retinal scanners. But the prettiness seeps even into the slum, in the form of a huge tv screen running ads for the precog police unit attached to the bottom of an overpass. (I’m not sure whether the slum advertising is supposed to be frightening or comforting, but it doesn’t matter in the end; the slum is forgotten in the climactic confrontation between the powerful.)

Where Dick’s story lacks style, Spielberg’s movie is intensely stylized; and where Dick’s world is sparse, Spielberg’s is dense. That density is necessary for Spielberg’s Hollywood brand of realism. It’s part of Spielberg’s schtick: he goes to great lengths to present a plausible future reality. (Of course, plausibility always comes second to thrilling chase scenes.) According to Joel Garreau’s account of Spielberg’s Minority Report futurist think tank, producer Bonnie Curtis claimed that the movie is grounded in “future reality” rather than “science fiction.” I know Spielberg said something similar about Jurassic Park back in 1993—I believe he used the phrase “science future”—but unfortunately I don’t have a citation for that. In his piece, Garreau says that

…the moviemakers seem to have gone to great deal of trouble to make this a legally persuasive future. The tension throughout the movie is between safety and freedom, a timely topic in 2002. And the whole plot of the movie centers on the notion that this Pre-Cog system is utterly infallible. Only thus can it be seen as reasonable search and seizure. Philip K. Dick didn’t go to this much trouble in his 1956 story of the same name on which the film is based.

These statements not only demonstrate a profound ignorance of science fiction outside the sealed-off reality of Hollywood; they also suggest how and why the filmmakers fail to understand or choose to ignore Dick’s point. For Dick, the point is not specifically how the Constitution would have to change to allow the existence of a precrime police agency in the United States; the point is to discover the more fundamental change required in society, the moral implications of that change and the impossibility of unchanging it. Details of world-building are unimportant, so Dick leaves them out. For Spielberg, though, the spectacle of an amazing future (and amazing chase scenes!) is at least as important as the moral implications of that future, if not moreso. Spielberg love big shiny toys—in fact, most filmmakers in Hollywood making science-fiction movies love big shiny toys. Despite Bonnie Curtis’s misguided praise, Minority Report is not fundamentally much different from, say, The Matrix: both movies surround a potentially daring speculative concept with dazzling Hollwood spectacle. (Actually, The Matrix is an unusually clever example of Hollywood science fiction: it turns its dazzling spectacle into something weightier by presenting a speculation about the relationship between reality and spectacle.) Spielberg likes to hire experts for a sense of authoritative realism, but that’s only another part of the spectacle.

Stay tuned for Part 2: John Anderton vs. John Anderton.

Rose’s Book Picks

Yes, I’ve been gone for a million years. No, I don’t have a good excuse. For those who had behind-the-scenes information, Steven’s wisdom teeth came out successfully with only minor weird snags. I’ve got ideas for several posts I’d like to make, but first I have to play along because Lyle Masaki hit me with the little book meme, although I’m considering doing the big book meme too, although with a certain amount of commentary to make it a little more worthwhile and to disobey the rules.

Anyway, here’s the best I can do bookwise:

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Ian Brill said that he wouldn’t want to have to recite all of Infinite Jest, which has convinced me I would. It would be so much fun to figure out how to deal with all the footnotes and footnotes to footnotes that I’d never have to recite it the same way twice.

When I was a tiny kid and had a better memory than I do now, I could recite full pages of several of the Narnia books, but I don’t think that’s what I’d want to keep with me for all time. I’m not sure David Foster Wallace is either, but I’m hoping that if I ever get stuck inside Fahrenheit 451 it’s a pretty safe bet that this post won’t be considered legally binding.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

I know I’ve written here before that I’m really bad at having celebrity crushes. It just doesn’t seem plausible that anyone I don’t know would want a relationship with me, nor would I with someone I don’t know well. So while this all seems like nonsense to me, I’m going to give this my best shot and Steven will probably tease me later for being inadequate and lying. Anyway, I’m not really sure. As a child, I was very taken with Ernestine Gilbreth of Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes, although since they’re basically autobiographical that probably only counts on a technicality. I certainly idealized and adored and yearned for all three main characters in Emma Donoghue’s Stir-Fry, which might be as close to a crush as I can get. I was often convinced as a child that if I could only meet the characters I was reading about, they would be better friends than any live children could be, and I suppose it’s this sense of cosmic rightness on an adult scale that’s what constitutes crushes of this sort. Boy, I’m not answering the question. Maybe I should move on and come back if I actually think of anything.

The last book you bought is:
Not counting comics/trade paperbacks, it was probably when a trip to a used bookstore in Knoxville netted me a whole load of feminist theory stuff, especially several books on eating disorders for well under $1 each. Oh, and a very cool-looking book, The Medieval Greek Romance, which I haven’t begun yet.

I tend not to buy myself new books much because they’re so expensive and I’m so stingy. My rule used to be that I only bought very cheap books or books I knew I’d lend out, but I’ve loosened that rule a bit.

The last book you read:

Again, excepting all the comics I’ve been reading, I think the last book I finished would be The World According to Mimi Smartypants, which is a collection of posts from the blog of Mimi Smartypants. I’d already read all the posts in their original, more fun and hyperlinky context, but while I won’t go so far as to call this a character crush, I do sort of think of Mimi Smartypants as an alternate universe version of me, if I’d managed to do cool things and have better friends and druggier experiences and a different homelife, but with the same violin background and dorky Greek obsession. I can’t believe I’m admitting this on the blog, which is yet another proof that even if I’m right I am indeed the doofus version.

I read Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in fairly quick succession a few months ago and haven’t read much fiction since then, although I’m about to swing back in that direction.

What are you currently reading?

Oy. This is embarrassing, because as I said I’m very much between novels and so have a bunch of different things going and going slowly. Bedtime reading has been Kim Chernin’s The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity, which is not too exciting but still a seminal eating disorder book. Various articles from Feminism Beside Itself and The New Feminist Criticism show up as bathtime reading when I’m not featuring manga or a frivolous magazine. And then I really need to get back to Victorian Sappho, a book by Yopie Prins on reinterpretations of Sappho’s poetry and biography/identity by Victorian poets, because I haven’t even gotten to the argument about how my beloved Swinburne’s uses of her meters have more to do with the way they sound like flogging than the extent to which they are direct homage. And of my birthday books, I must admit I’m only reading Epileptic and slowly for some reason, I think to savor it. Usually I’m an unstoppable reader who devours things, but I’m taking my time here and haven’t even gotten out of the material covered in the first volume I’d already read.

Five books you would take to a deserted island.
(Was anyone else annoyed by the way this quiz started with full sentences and fell away from it quickly?)

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. Adam Stephanides is rereading it and now a blogless friend is reading it for the first time and I’m tempted to go back into it. It’s a book that could sustain many rereadings and hold me for a long time.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. Maybe Cassandra should count as a crush, because her voice is one of the most amazing and consistent of any I’ve ever read. This book makes me laugh every time I read it.

I’d need some giant poetry collection, Norton or something. I used to have an amazing two-volume set of 20th century poetry, Poems for the Millennium, but I’d need it to cover more time than that.

And since I think I’d want something to keep me cheerful, I’m going to go for a massive P.G. Wodehouse collection of Jeeves & Wooster stories over Robert Benchley’s My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew, but it’s a tough decision and one I’d probably regret a bit eventually.

Fifth is going to be my cheaty one. I want The Odyssey in Greek, but of course my Greek isn’t good enough to just read it, so I need a dictionary and maybe a grammar and some pens and notebooks, which would help pass the rest of the time anyway. I figure this is no worse than people bringing the complete works of Dickens or something like that. And I won’t even try to sneak in The Iliad on analogous grounds, because they clearly have different authors and I clearly prefer one to the other. Although both Andromache and Hector give some potentially crush-worthy speeches….

Postmodern Horror

I’ve been trying to write a post about Shaun of the Dead, but it’s been tough going. I know vaguely what I want to say, but I seem to have no interest in turning my vague thoughts into words. Oh well. Instead, I’ve been thinking about postmodern horror of an entirely different kind.

But should I first discuss what kind of postmodern horror Shaun of the Dead is, since I’ve already contrasted it with the kind of postmodern horror I actually want to write about? Yes, I suppose I should. Shaun of the Dead, of course, is in the tradition of self-conscious/ironic horror movies, movies like Scream and even Scary Movie. The authors (I will use “authors” to refer collectively to the people who made a movie) of Scream take on the relatively easy and ultimately banal task of making a straight slasher flick, with one crucial violation of the rules: the characters know about slasher flicks, spend much of their time discussing slasher flicks, and recognize immediately that they are living inside a slasher flick. The result is a movie that balances precariously on the line between jokiness and sincerity and isn’t quite deft enough to avoid stumbling. It’s reasonably entertaining, although the authors’ mocking indulgence in the slasher genre’s violent and exploitative virgin/whore morality makes for some particularly queasy scenes. The second and third movies might have improved on the formula—I don’t remember clearly.

Before I saw Shaun of the Dead, I expected a goofier, indier Scream. But whereas Scream approaches the problem of self-conscious postmodern narrative by presenting characters who discuss horror-movie cliches at the same time that they act out those cliches, the trailer for Shaun of the Dead suggests that it takes the different approach of riffing facetiously on little details and problems that tend to get glossed over in other movies—viz. the talk-show guest who insists on staying married to her zombified husband. Sort of a converse Scream, a self-conscious joke-horror movie that shakes up the familiar narrative by making the characters less clever instead of more—not only do they not notice the zombie-movie plot mechanics clunking along around them, they mess with the mechanics by failing to fall properly into their roles.

That’s what I thought before I saw the movie. Mostly, anyway—I’m partly reconstructing my thoughts in light of having seen it. What do I think now that I’ve finally seen it? Well, it’s sort of like I expected it to be, but it also has other more interesting things going on. It starts with a strong romantic-comedy foundation. Shaun is a 29-year-old guy who suspects he ought to take things more seriously but seems to have trouble finding things that right taking seriously. His sidekick is Ed, who “doesn’t have too many friends,” which is an understatement. Shaun’s girlfriend is Liz, who has tired of Shaun’s inertial inability to discover nightly entertainment opportunities outside the local pub. Her sidekicks are David and Dianne, a pretentious twat and a flightly failed actress, respectively. Liz is one botched date from dumping Shaun for good. David is in love with Liz and doing a pathetic job of hiding it from his girlfriend Dianne. Dianne wants to know when Shaun’s going to hook them up with free cable. Ed’s single endearing quality is his ability to perform a remarkably poor impression of an orangutan. Shaun—well, he doesn’t exactly want to spend the rest of his life drinking himself to death at the Winchester (the aforementioned local pub), but all the better alternatives have the flaw of requiring him to do something other than sit around the local pub.

Hmm, it’s been several days since I looked at this post. I seem to have been writing some kind of plot summary of Shaun of the Dead. But what’s the point—I don’t have the movie anymore, so I can hardly do a close reading. It’s been weeks since I saw the movie! I will now speak vaguely and noncomittally.

So Shaun of the Dead starts as a romantic comedy, and it could easily have kept going without zombies for a whole movie. Throwing in zombies is dangerous, because it means people like me might say, “If they wanted to do a romantic comedy about the unresolvable opposition of needing to grow up and not wanting to become one’s parents, why are they wasting their (and, more importantly, my) time with zombies?” But I didn’t say this while watching this movie. Partly because the authors take the time to play connect-the-themes. The shots of a stumbly, zombie-sounding Shaun who turns out to be merely a sleepy, yawning Shaun, the zombified wage-slave drones who are literally zombified and then put to work as—zombie slaves, I guess—funny jokes, but also plugged right into Shaun’s real-life concerns. (And, yes, terribly obvious and presumably done in every other zombie movie ever. Well, it’s a zombie movie, you work with what you’ve got. Shaun of the Dead works with what it’s got stylishly and intelligently. [???????But if they wanted to do a movie about the unresolvable opposition &c., why did they waste their time with zombies?” I’m not going to get into a defense of using the fantastic in art here, sorry. Um, because sometimes mere naturalism isn’t enough for some others, and then they break out the zombies.]) Let’s continue that line of thought, but outside the parentheses. What the zombie stuff does is latch onto specifc real-life concerns in the narrative, complicate and modify them, cause them to resonate with greater intensity.

Damn, I’ve been sloppy in talking about the romantic-comed aspect of Shaun of the Dead. Because, when you think about it, romantic comedy as a genre functions like a lot of fantasy—i.e., it latches onto specific real-life concerns, complicates and modifies them, causes them to resonate with greater intensity. So Shaun of the Dead has the romantic comedy and the zombies messing with the narrative. But is that enough for Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg? Certainly not. They add that extra layer of self-consciousness, which allows them to slip back and forth between zombies and romantic comedy without getting bogged down in either. There are three big things going on in the movie—the romantic comedy, the zombie stuff, and the mucky “human drama”—and each is so emotionally intense (and gorily harrowing, in the case of the zombie stuff) that it could easily overwhelm the whole movie. But the extra layer of irony allows the movie to flip deftly with precision timing from the chilling revelation of Shaun’s mum’s impending zombification to jokes about David wanting to shoot Shaun’s mum to simple “human drama” as the relationships between characters build tension and explode in heady conflict. The section of the movie from the musical zombie fighting/dancing choreographed to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” to the moment when Shaun, Liz and Ed find themselves trapped behind the bar is the final buildup and climax of the movie. These scenes have everything going on at once, and it really shouldn’t work but it does anyway, and it’s lovely.

Er, I guess I ended up writing a lot about Shaun of the Dead after all. And not about the kind of postmodern horror film I claimed I’d write about at the beginning of this post. I suppose I could edit the beginning of the post to make things make more sense, but I think I’ll leave it as is. More to come on postmodern horror… some time. I won’t promise timeliness.

Today’s Recommended Reading (from/for me!)

This is a day that will live in whatever the good version of infamy is. After great suspense, The Secret Friend Society is live, featuring Hope Larson and Kean Soo and their respective webcomics Salamander Dreams and Jellaby. I’m a bit sad it wasn’t more sinister content, but not really surprised and I’m looking forward to reading the two stories. But the real reason I’m obsessed with Hope Larson’s work is that I’m hard at work in my head designing a ham hat even though everyone I’ve told about my plans thinks it’s a bad idea. (Oh, and for Steven: “Pah!”)

It’s also the publication date for The World according to Mimi Smartypants, a novel in the form of online diary entries from the Mimi Smartypants website. I’d beeen reading entries occasionally and then in December and January gave in to the allure and read the entire archive. It’s something that makes me laugh, which is rare in written pieces. I’m sure it helps that we have at least minor things in common — a past history with the violin, a desire to keep making Greek jokes after college, really maybe not much more than that because she’s basically cool — but something just clicks. I’m looking forward to eventually reading the book version even if it will be repetitive, because I’m interested in this phenomenon of turning blogs into books. It wouldn’t work here!

And I feel like I ought to follow the rule of threes, so I’ll just add that it’s a great day when it’s 7:00 am and I’m not at work already! Variable schedules have their downsides, but right now I’m not feeling it.

Oh, but more important is Seaguy, one of my favorite comics from last year, is available in an eminently affordable trade paperback today. I intend to buy a copy when I get off work (which will be late, of course, to compensate for late starts) and curl up and read gleefully. At one point Steven solicited comments on it from my 13-year-old brother to counter the arguments that it was too difficult to follow, but I don’t know what ever became of them. I just recall that he was curious about who held behind-the-scenes power, what Mickey Eye represented, and whether there was going to be more. Also, did we have any other comics he could read? I think the only way we got him to talk about this one was by telling him we wouldn’t lend him anything else until he did.